Romance Sentimentale by Neil Bahadur
Sergei Eisenstein’s Love Streams
In Kinet's recent program in conjunction with Close-up Centre's screening of Let The Summer Never Come Again (2017), a group of self-described, one-minute "love streams" preface Alexandre Koberidze's nearly 3 1/2 hour flip-phone love epic. Sergei Eisenstein’s Romance Sentimentale (1930) runs twenty minutes, yet nothing seems to happen (or rather, there is no significant event of any kind) yet there is a character who sings. I'm reminded of Kelley Dong's Late Embryo (2017) which runs a mere ten seconds. Dong’s film is comprised of 56 photographs taken over twenty days, which, when played in succession, take on the effect of a moving image. Late Embryo is demonstrative of cinema’s ability to condense time, making twenty whole days last only eleven seconds. It is in a sense is the inverse of Eisenstein’s experiment in time, where something which only lasts a minute or less is expanded to a full twenty minutes.
Originating as an early experiment in sound cinema, Eisenstein recognizes the possibility for sound to emphasize feeling —the inherent possibility of musicality within the spoken word. Eisenstein combines sonic experiment with cinema’s reordering of time. One of the questions Romance Sentimentale asks is this: how long does an emotion last? Following the film’s only title card (reading “Autumn...sadness...dead love...such are the themes of this old Russian song”) the film briefly segues into a sound collage before sped-up shots of trees, waves crashing, trees falling, and other abstract shots of nature begin. In this collage, we don’t get any sense of direct sound. Rather, it is synched with the images we see on screen in a more abstract form of what eventually became known as “Mickey Mousing,” no doubt picked up off of Walt Disney, who Eisenstein was a great admirer of. Soon, a musical soundtrack begins, similarly “violent” to the sound collage. Again this is meant to act as a sort of companion to the images, not a counterpoint! The images of trees falling and waves crashing take on an aggressively abstract sensuousness as they are cut to the music, eschewing dialectics in favor of consuming sensual impact. Interestingly, this resembles what Disney himself would do in Fantasia (1940), and one can imagine Eisenstein cutting this scene as though conducting an orchestra, like Mickey Mouse putting on the Sorcerer’s hat, turning a broom into his apprentice. And Fantasia came ten years later!
But unlike the later Disney picture, the end goal isn’t virtuosity in and of itself. Instead, these “tempests of nature,” so to speak, are equal to tempests of emotion: shortly, the music calms, so does the water not crash but ripple, and the wind doesn’t rip through leaves, but steady. Suddenly, there is a character and a setting; maybe there will be a plot. There isn’t One in the conventional sense of the term, except for what we have just seen. A woman stands in silhouette by a window, staring out at the landscape, but now that landscape seems as normal as it ever does. Meanwhile time passes ‘conventionally’: we see a ticking clock, a lamppost, a fireplace burning, a dog. What do we make of this in context? Then the woman moves — she leaves the window she watches the world outside of, and sits down by the piano — and this is the only ‘action’ which occurs in the film. She sings the sad song mentioned in the opening, and soon similar images occur once more: rain hitting the window, a fire burning beyond its means, even animation appears, and sculptures of bodies holding other sculptures of bodies.
As the woman looks outside the window, and we the see the landscape as it ‘exists’ within conventional reality, we see the meaning of the sad song - or the meaning of the illustration. The song is belaboured, melancholy, in emotional turmoil. So is the rapidity of the images we see in the beginning, and the music and sounds that accompany it. This isn’t just metaphor for inner turmoil, it’s also the reordering of the senses put into motion. As we see the woman watch an image we have already seen out of the window, we realize that this is also her own reordering of perception, brought on by painful emotion. The cutting isn’t for psychological affect (as say, a German Expressionist filmmaker might do) but physiological affect. Yet, as Eisenstein seems to say, we must go even further: physiology and psychology are intertwined, there is an emotional breaking point of a person, and simply depicting it is not enough. We see the abstraction first, then we see the “character and setting” and then we see what she is looking at. The question Eisenstein posits here is this: what is the relationship between our senses and what we actually see? As she sits down to perform, the question is pushed even further - what is the relationship between the “art” that one creates and the world outside of it? If art is ultimately the inner world of a person, then what of the world around them? But Eisenstein never leaves us with questions. A person takes in the world as stimuli, then releases it as creative gesture. The inner world is defined by the outer one, and one’s creative gestures, such as art, are a reflection of the world back at it, colored by whatever individuality a human being can hold on to.
Most filmmakers can barely form a single question throughout an entire film, but like his idol, Leonardo da Vinci, Eisenstein posits questions and gives answers. Shortly after the song begins, we see muddy images—tree branches as a kind of emotional abstraction, fog—all suggestive of an interior state. Then the film appears to explode in a sort of cathartic triumph: sculptures embracing, white doves. At one point we see a white piano and the woman dressed in a white fur being reflected in rippling water. The camera reverses position, and then fades to the woman back in black, sitting at a black piano, back in the setting we have seen earlier. Perception has its limitations; cinema can go even farther than the human. The music continues and slows down, and rain begins to run down the windows like tears. For a moment we are back in “the world” yet Eisenstein is controlling it. We begin to see the same images we saw at the beginning of the sequence: a clock ticking, a fireplace, a dog. What began as an experiment in sound brings us back to “conventional reality”, but the point is not that "conventional reality" does not exist. There is no such thing as conventional reality in the face of the cinematic.
It’s no Man With The Movie Camera. In fact, it’s an expulsion of cinematic capability and possibility that Vertov could have only barely imagined. And the woman has only actually sung anything for about a minute. And after the rainstorm, the sun rises, wind blows through tree blossoms, and so on. Does this happen after our own bouts of emotional turmoil? Of course not, but it can when it’s made to do so.